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The plight of the Rohingya refugees

FOR several weeks now, the world has been reading about the plight of the Rohingya refugees who are fleeing persecution and violence in Myanmar. The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority living in Buddhist Myanmar where they are denied citizenship, rejected as Bengali immigrants, and have endured decades of persecution. Last month, Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar security forces which launched military reprisals, burning entire villages, and killing over a thousand people. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled to neighboring Bangladesh which, although a Muslim nation like the Rohingyas, is a very poor country and cannot provide for the estimated 400,000 refugees who have fled from Myanmar.

The Dalai Lama, the world’s Buddhist leader, spoke out last week for the Rohingyas, saying the Buddha would definitely give help to the poor Muslims. Retired Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa wrote an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, for many years detained by her own government but now the First State Counselor of Myanmar, expressing sadness over the injustice to the Rohingyas.

It is not generally known to Filipinos but in 2015, boatloads of Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar arrived in the Philippines and were readily admitted and granted asylum. They stayed here for about five months, recovering from their ordeal, before they moved on. Long before that, before the start of World War II, the Philippine Commonwealth government granted asylum to some 1,500 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany’s conquering army in Europe. And in 1975, after the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War, thousands of Vietnamese boat people were allowed to live in Palawan and Bataan.

Should the Rohingyas once again seek our help, we will surely extend it as we did to other refugees in the past. The Philippine government is committed to honor the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. But even without these international conventions, we have, in the words of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, “a moral obligation” to help people in need.

We continue to follow developments in Myanmar and Bangladesh and hope that the ordeal of the Rohingyas will soon end.

Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano said the Philippines, as chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, may seek a consultation among the ten ASEAN nations, including Myanmar. “We have a humanitarian commitment,” he said.